Peer Tutors/Mentors:

Effect on Motivation and Persistence in the GED Classroom

Kathleen A. Guglielmi and Gayle Dzekevich

RI Department of Education Adult Education Inquiry Project June 25, 1999


Student retention continues to be a major concern for adult educators. Students come to our programs for a variety of reasons (i.e. personal satisfaction, employer required, prior to job training, etc.) but frequently leave prior to completion of their intended goals.

When we examined the reasons for dropout in our programs, the authors found that a lack of intrinsic motivation, feelings of low self-efficacy, and situational barriers are the major factors for student dropout. It is these factors that we address in our action research project through the use of a peer/mentor tutor in a GED classroom.



Increasingly, students are attending GED classes because they are required to get a GED in order to participate in job training programs. In many cases, these students are in the process of moving from welfare-to-work and are feeling the pressure of the mandate. Because these students are required to attend, that is, they are extrinsically motivated to attend, they are more at risk of dropping out than a student who is intrinsically motivated to attend (Deci, Vallerand, Pelletier, & Ryan, 1991). As adult educators, we must find ways to help students move from being extrinsically motivated to attend to being intrinsically motivated to persist and achieve their goals.


Many students voice their feelings of low self-efficacy in relation to their successful completion of the GED program. Much research exists that supports the relationship between self-efficacy beliefs and academic performance and persistence (Multon, Brown, & Lent, 1991). Research also shows that self-efficacy influences motivation by determining goals people set for themselves, how much effort they expend to reach those goals, how long they persevere in the face of difficulty, and their resilience to failures (Bandura, 1977; Bandura, 1993; Multon, Brown, & Lent, 1991; Schunk, 1983). As adult educators, our task is to assist students in seeing themselves as successful learners who are able to achieve their goals.

Situational Barriers

Our students report lack of time, lack of childcare, work responsibilities, and lack of support from family and friends most frequently as barriers to their persistence. We as adult educators must assist students in ways to overcome the barriers that inhibit their persistence and goal completion.

The question is then, can we as adult educators improve retention by addressing a student's issues of extrinsic motivation, low self-efficacy, and situational barriers to persistence? Our approach to this problem was to utilize a peer tutor/mentor in the classroom as a model of success for the students. Our idea was that if students had a person in the classroom to help them that was a graduate of a GED program, who had issues with motivation, self-efficacy, and situational barriers themselves, they would see a model of persistence that was meaningful to them.

Peer mentor/tutor

We chose a recent graduate of a GED program to participate in our project as a peer/mentor tutor. We explained the reasons behind the project and the required time commitment. Our peer/mentor tutor was thrilled at the prospect of being asked to participate and readily agreed. For purposes of this paper, we will refer to her as Jeanette1. We trained Jeanette for approximately six hours beginning in December of 1998. She was exposed to principles of adults as learners, and mentoring and peer tutoring activities. She joined the class in January for one night each week. (the class meets for two hours, two nights per week). She remained in class through the first week of June when the program ended for the summer. Jeanette was introduced to current and entering students (we operate on a rolling entry/exit system) as someone who was there to help them in both their studies and with details about the program, the testing process, and with graduation information. Jeanette worked one-on-one with students who had subject-matter questions while the instructor was working with other students. She also talked with them about her experience as a student who was trying to work full-time and study. She explained the testing process to them and helped ease their fears about taking the tests. She brought in her framed diploma, and pictures from the graduation ceremony to show students the excitement of finishing their program. She provided a kind of support for the students that only a peer who had "been there" could provide.


Research was conducted on an on-going basis (as is typical of action research) via qualitative methods. Participant observation was the main data collection tool. One of the researchers was the classroom teacher and worked closely with Jeanette. The researcher/teacher kept notes of her observations of the interactions between Jeanette and the students she worked with. In addition, the researcher/teacher conducted semi-structured interviews with Jeanette, the students who worked with Jeannette, and held a telephone interview with Jeannette's employer. This data was analyzed throughout the data collection process as to the effectiveness of the peer mentor/tutor - student relationship.


Of the 12 students that were in class when Jeanette joined as peer mentor/tutor, 6 graduated with a GED in June. Of the remaining 6 students, 3 continued to work toward completion and plan to return to class in the fall of 1999. Three students dropped out for unknown reasons. The researcher/teacher interviewed the 6 students who remained in class The students were asked about the effectiveness of the peer tutor/mentor in the classroom, how she helped them during class, and the results of that relationship. Without exception, every student claimed to be positively affected by the relationship with Jeanette. They reported that it was helpful to have another person in the classroom who could help them one-on-one with their studies, who could give them information about the experience of getting a GED, who could talk to them about the testing process, and who could get them excited about graduation. Many of them felt that Jeanette helped bring a social atmosphere to class that kept them excited about coming back to class week after week. They said that she helped them see that it was "doable," that they too could get their diploma. When asked if they felt that having Jeanette had an impact on their retention, they all responded positively.

The result of the interview with Jeannette was that the experience had a very positive effect on her self-confidence and her self-esteem. She reported feeling ìgreatî that she had been asked to do this in the first place, that someone had enough confidence in her ability to help other people. She also reported getting great satisfaction when she was able to help a student in their studies and when she saw that they appreciated having her there. When asked if she would like to continue in the role as a peer mentor/tutor, she was hesitant at first but agreed. Her hesitance came from the fact that she is wary of giving a student the wrong answer or not being able to help them with difficult math problems. In essence, the ìtutorî part of her mentor/tutor role makes her somewhat unsure of herself. She explained that although she was hesitant, she would spend the summer studying so she would be prepared to meet the students subject-matter needs next year.

While interviewing Jeannette, it came out that her boss had praised her job performance and had commented that he noticed it had improved since she had been involved in this program. The researcher asked Jeannette if a conversation with her employer would be possible. Arrangements were made for a telephone conversation between the researcher and Jeannette's employer. The result of that conversation was that Jeannette's employer has noticed that she has an increased level of self-confidence that spills over into her work. He reported that she has come out of her shell" is "eager to do more on the job" and is now always "looking to do more things". He told the researcher that recently he needed to send a company representative to Florida to take part in a court case involving fraud against the company. He was unable to attend, as was another manager, so Jeannette offered to go and handle the case. Her boss was amazed and readily agreed. He has always been pleased with Jeannette's job performance (she has worked with him for 20+ years), but he is particularly pleased with her new level of commitment to the company. This finding was an unexpected, positive outcome of the project.

Implications for Practice

The results of this action research project have helped the researcher/teachers to see an approach to help students become intrinsically motivated to persist, achieve a higher level of self-efficacy, and see ways around the situational barriers studentsí face. Obviously, this approach to assisting students will not work with all students, but we are encouraged that it did positively affect 80% of the students in the class under study. It should be mentioned also that another student in class, who did graduate, approached the researcher/teacher about becoming a peer tutor/mentor next year. She felt such benefit from the relationship that she wanted to become part of the program as well. This fact, combined with the positive results to the class, help the researchers see the benefit that can be derived with other students by providing them another person who can help them on a level that the instructor can not. Only someone who has "been there" can get through to many of our students. This project has been personally and professionally rewarding to the researcher/teachers and is one that they hope to continue with in the future.

1. Jeannette is actually Gladys Dumas, who gave this report at the final sharing session, and has given permission for it to be reproduced here:

Hi, my name is Gladys Dumas. I'd like to tell you how one year and a G.E.D. can make a big difference. Last year I decided it was time to get my G.E.D., so I went to the Arlington School and started filling out the pre-test and thought, "Oh my God. I'm 43 years old... how can I do this? What if I fail?" At this point, I know I would not be going back. That was when I got my first lesson. A caring teacher's lesson ... Kathy, to be exact. She helped me to believe in myself. I began studying in late January and finished in early May. At that time I earned my G.E.D. and was so happy. After that, things got even better. Kathy called me at work and asked me to help her with a new program and I said, "Yes." It has been so rewarding and has helped me in many ways.

I now have more confidence in myself. My boss has even told me that he has seen a big change in me. The biggest reward, however, is helping the other students and seeing the look on their faces when they get the correct answer. The reward is knowing that you were a part of it when a student thanks you for all of your help and confides personal things about themselves, or tells you why receiving their dip;loma is so important to them. This makes you want to help even more. There were times when Karthy would be teaching math classes and students would ask for my help. To know that they had that much confidence in me made me proud to be there. I shared with them how it felt to walk across the stage and receive your diploma which made them more interested. I brought in my diploma and pictures of my own graduation night to show them that it really does happen. I could not believe all the questions they had for me after that. Each week they had more and more questions for me about Graduation Night. Questions about the test: how hard was it, how it was set up, were you given enough time, did you think you would pass? This made me remember that these were the same questions I had when I was preparing to take the test, and yes, the teachers had all the answers. I, however, had one thing they didn't have. Experience. I had just gone through it and knew from experience how it felt.

In closing, I would just like to say that after working one on one with the students, seeing them graduate and their thank you cards to me on Graduation Night made it all worth it. I know this program has helped me in many ways and I think that I have helped the students as well as the progrsam in some ways.

Thank you,

Gladys Dumas

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